Archive for the 'autism' Category

Dec 21 2009

Autism Prevalence

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has published the results of their latest study on the prevalence of autism. There is no question that in the last 20 years the number of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses has increased. What is also clear is that during this time there has been increased surveillance and a broadening of the diagnosis of ASD. Whether or not this accounts for the entire increase in ASD numbers, or if there is a true increase in there as well, is unknown.

Into that context, the CDC adds their most recent numbers, concluding:

In 2006, on average, approximately 1% or one child in every 110 in the 11 ADDM sites was classified as having an ASD (approximate range: 1:80–1:240 children [males: 1:70; females: 1:315]). The average prevalence of ASDs identified among children aged 8 years increased 57% in 10 sites from the 2002 to the 2006 ADDM surveillance year. Although improved ascertainment accounts for some of the prevalence increases documented in the ADDM sites, a true increase in the risk for children to develop ASD symptoms cannot be ruled out. On average, although delays in identification persisted, ASDs were being diagnosed by community professionals at earlier ages in 2006 than in 2002.

That 1 in every 110 children on average now carry an ASD diagnosis is not new news. This CDC data was actually released ahead of publication in October. At the same time a phone survey published in Pediatrics found 110 in 10,000 children carried an ASD diagnosis – or a little more than 1%. This 1% figure seems to be highly replicated – a National Health Services survey released in September also found a prevalence of 1% for ASD in the UK.

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22 responses so far

Nov 27 2009

Answering Some Autism Questions

Published by under autism,Neuroscience

Like my science-blogging colleagues, I get e-mail. I always appreciate it when readers (or listeners, in the case of the SGU) take the time to write. Sometimes the e-mails are questions from someone who disagrees with my position on a hot issue. I especially like these e-mails – they are good blog fodder, and I think the format of answering questions is more compelling and interesting than making a didactic argument.

Below is an example of the kind of question I most like to get – from someone who disagrees with me, but still manages to ask polite and cogent questions. This stands in stark contract to most hostile e-mail I get, which are just strings of ad hominems, straw men, and other logical fallacies. I get the impression (and some of my e-mailers have later even admitted this) that the e-mails were not meant as an opening to serious discussion, but as a venting rant into the ether of the internet.

Harold asks some very important questions about the alleged autism-vaccine link and research priorities, and I am happy for the opportunity to clarify my position. His e-mail begins below the fold:
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18 responses so far

Nov 23 2009

Some Good Autism Reporting

I and other science bloggers spend a lot of time and virtual ink doing damage control on bad science reporting in the media. It’s hard not to get a little jaded after wading through one terrible science article after another.  I discuss this problem and one stunning example of promoting pseudoscience passing for journalism today on SkepticBlog.

But occasionally I do make a point of celebrating good science journalism when I see it – and not just a solid piece discussing a new science news item, but a reporter tackling a controversial topic and getting it right. Most of the time mainstream journalism of fake scientific controversies or fringe ideas falls for the “false balance” fallacy – presenting fake science and real science side by side, as if they were equivalent, or just a matter of opinion. Or, even worse, we get token skepticism, or no skepticism at all.

Last week the Chicago Tribune printed a long piece on biological treatments for autism by Trine Tsouderos and Patricia Callahan, and an excellent piece it was. They clearly understand what the real story is – a subculture of fringe doctors and others who are essentially doing unethical experiments and children with autism. They are exploiting desperate parents (who then sometimes contribute to the exploitation of the next desperate parents) who are seeking any possible help for their children.

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19 responses so far

Nov 12 2009

IACC Statement on Autism Research

Published by under autism,Neuroscience

Politics is partly about setting priorities and agendas, and therefore it is impossible to keep politics out of science. Politicians are also in control of the public’s purse strings, and so funding science also cannot be free from politics.

But ideally we should have an atmosphere in which politicians and funding agencies set broad agendas, and then let scientists decide the details of which research should be funded based upon the science. It is, in fact, an important trust that public money that is spent on scientific research be utilized optimally, and not to promote someone’s narrow ideological agenda. Examples of abuses are legion; my favorite example is the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), Senator Tom Harkin’s pet project in which the usual standards of medical research have been subverted to promote sectarian medicine.

We want scientists to follow their noses – to research those questions they think are most fruitful. But scientists are often forced to follow the funding, and this distorts the direction of research. Industry funding distorts research in ways that are advantageous to industry – a real problem that is being examined and there are at least attempts to deal with it. Government funding should be neutral, and provide a counterbalance to industry funding, but is often subverted to ideology. Even well-meaning patient-groups can distort funding if they try to dictate what scientists should be researching in exchange for their fund-raising, with detrimental effects.

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13 responses so far

Oct 27 2009

One Vaccine, One Ingredient and Anti-Vax Talking Points

The anti-vaccine community are a loose collection of individuals and organizations who, at their core, are dedicated to the notion that vaccines are bad. There is some variation of opinion within the anti-vaccinationists, but not much. Some claim that vaccines do not work at all, while other acknowledge some benefit. Some try to be coy by saying they are just asking questions (sure, like the 9/11 truthers are “just asking”), while others come right out and make demonstrably false claims, like vaccines cause autism. But they all cluster around the opinion that vaccines are toxic (in some way) and that they cause harm.

What is remarkable about the anti-vaccine crowd is their consistency in talking points. One might call it message discipline (enough to make Republicans jealous) but I think that implies more deliberate coordination than there is evidence for. I may be wrong in this, but I think it is enough to say that they all travel in the same virtual circles and play off each other’s rhetoric and arguments. They are a political/ideological community, and such communities are more plugged in today because of Web 2.0 than ever before.

I’m not just talking about slogans, like “Green our Vaccines”, which are designed for widespread use. Reading the various anti-vaccine websites and authors you begin to see a pattern of specific talking points coming in waves.  Squalene has been in vaccines as an adjuvant for years, yet suddenly many of the anti-vaccine sites are squawking about squalene. I have not tracked down the original source of the squalene flap – it spread so quickly through the anti-vaccine blogs.

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35 responses so far

Oct 21 2009

Another Study Showing Lack of Correlation Between Mercury and Autism

Published by under autism,Neuroscience

A new study published online in Environmental Health Perspectives shows no correlation between blood mercury levels in 2-5 year old children and autism or developmental delay. This study adds to the growing evidence that environmental exposure to mercury, from any source, is not a risk factor for autism.

The study looked at 452 children aged 2-5 (which is a robust sample) with either autism spectrum disorder (ASD), other developmental delay (DD), or typically developed (TD). They found that children with ASD and DD had lower levels of blood mercury than TD controls. They further found that ASD and DD children tended to eat less fish, and as fish is by far the most significant source of mercury exposure, this explains their lower levels.

The researchers then adjusted for reported exposure to fish as well as other known sources of mercury and found that the adjusted level of mercury were the same for all groups. The levels were also similar to established national norms, meaning that the population being studied and the methods used are likely representative.

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17 responses so far

Oct 08 2009

More Vaccine-Autism Nonsense

The anti-vaccine community is tireless. As I wrote yesterday, they happily shift around their multiple goalposts as long as they have some working hypothesis about how vaccines are to blame for autism or some human suffering. They have moved from MMR to thimerosal to aluminum to “toxins” to squalene and now the HepB vaccine. They just spin the wheel and choose their next target – although they never really abandon their prior targets, they just back burner them a bit.

They also have their small dedicated group of researchers, like the father and son team of Geier and Geier, to produce crappy studies to support their anti-vaccine claims. Andrew Wakefield, who has been rightly vilified for starting the MMR scare with his now discredited Lancet study, has also apparently decided to make a career out of feeding bad studies to the anti-vaccinationists.

I acknowledge there is a certain symmetry to the situation now. The scientific community presents studies that show a lack of correlation between some aspect of vaccines and autism or other neurological disorders. They generally accept these studies as supporting vaccine safety, even while being open about their limitations. They also sharply criticize those studies that suggest there may be a connection between vaccines and autism as fatally flawed.

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8 responses so far

Oct 07 2009

Autism Prevalence

Two recent studies concerning the prevalence of autism in the US have been getting a lot of attention, because they indicate that autism prevalence may be higher than previously estimated. This, of course, fuels the debate over whether or not there are environmental triggers of autism.

One study was conducted by the CDC but has yet to be published. The results were announced ahead of publication by the US Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to the autism community. She reports that the new prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is now estimated at 1% or 100 in 10,000 children. This is an increase over the last few years. In 2002 the prevalence was estimated to be 66 per 10,000.

The second study was published in the journal Pediatrics and is a phone survey of 78,037 parents. They asked if they had any children who had ever been diagnosed with an ASD. Here are the results:

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25 responses so far

Aug 20 2009

August Is Vaccine Awareness Month – Who Knew?

Published by under autism,Neuroscience

I applaud the recent attempts by the American Academy of Pediatrics to fight back against the anti-vaccine misinformation scare-mongering machine. As part of that goal August is Vaccine Awareness Month. However, this just brought home for me how much better the PR machine is on the anti-vax side than on the side of science. Here we are half way through August and I am just learning it is Vaccine Awareness Month. This is a topic I track quite closely, and blog about frequently. Where was the media blitz? Where was the rallying of troops?

The Good

OK – it’s not all bad. They did put out an open letter with a fair number of authoritative signature. Here is a brief excerpt:

We, the undersigned, support immunizations as the safest, most effective way to control and eradicate infectious diseases. This August, as another National Immunization Awareness Month comes to a close, we are reminded that diseases such as smallpox and polio were once commonplace in the United States. Thanks to vaccinations, we have not seen or experienced many of the infectious diseases that gripped past generations, but other countries have not been so fortunate and outbreaks continue in the United States.

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24 responses so far

Jun 19 2009

The Price of Superstition

Published by under autism

I hate reading these stories – A Haitian woman is accused of burning her own daughter, 6 year old  Frantzcia Lauradin, in a ritual designed to purify her of demons. The child’s grandmother did eventually put out the fire, while the mother ignored her child’s screams of agony, but then allegedly put her to bed rather than take her to a hospital.

Only after a day of begging by relatives was she eventually taken to the ER, where she was found to have 2nd and 3rd degree burns on 25% of her body, including part of her face.


The mother, Marie Lauradin, is denying the charges, saying she accidentally spilled some boiling rice on her daughter and did not notice the burns until she was in the ER. As reported, that defense is not credible – a mother not noticing severe burns on her daughter’s face? Such burns would cause someone to scream in agony, making it impossible, in my opinion, to justify the delay in bringing the child to medical attention.

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17 responses so far

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